J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 09, 2020

“Become a violent advocate in the Cause of Liberty”

As recounted yesterday, Capt. Thomas Speakman was killed in the French and Indian War in January 1757.

Though I haven’t seen his probate records, Speakman appears to have left a considerable estate to his wife Mary and their children, including properties in Marlborough and Boston. But perhaps not as much as they needed to maintain their lifestyle. Then a house on Milk Street belonging to Thomas Speakman’s estate was among the buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 1760.

Thomas and Mary Speakman’s oldest child, William, was then twenty years old, looking ahead to his career. The other surviving siblings included:
  • Gilbert Warner, born 7 Nov 1747
  • Hannah, born 1 Nov 1749
  • Sarah, born 27 Oct 1751
  • Mary, born 26 Sept 1754
One important asset for young William Speakman were the men who had married his late father’s sisters—the merchants John Rowe and Ralph Inman. Rowe in particular became a mentor for William and his younger brother. It’s possible William spent time in Rowe’s counting-house, learning business skills; Gilbert certainly did.

By 1765, at the age of twenty-five, William Speakman was partners with a slightly older man named Thomas Chase at a rum distillery in the South End of Boston. Speakman may have inherited that building from one of his grandfathers while Chase handled day-to-day management, but it’s hard to tell. Chase and Speakman also appear together on the records of King’s Chapel, sponsoring babies in their circle at baptism.

Then came the Stamp Act. Thomas Chase was one of a small group of young businessmen who organized public protests against that law, calling themselves the Loyall Nine and later the Sons of Liberty. On 15 Jan 1766 John Adams described dining with the group in “their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty. It is a Compting Room in Chase & Speakmans Distillery. A very small Room it is.”

Speakman never appeared on the list of Whig activists, but he was activist-adjacent. I’ve found only one instance of him participating in politics. On 18 Mar 1768, the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, his uncle Rowe reported that Speakman, Thomas Crafts, and John Avery took down “two effigies on Liberty Tree this morning marked C[harles]. P[axton]. and J[ohn]. W[illiams].” That action looks like supporting those Customs officials, but in fact Crafts and Avery were members of the Loyall Nine. They wanted to control such protests, and they were among the few men in town with the clout to take down someone else’s effigies when they thought the timing was bad.

A few months later, on 29 August, Rowe wrote in his diary: “Poor Wm. Speakman was taken in a fit & had doubtful Struggles for Life.” Speakman survived this health scare, but it probably prompted him to leave Boston and move out to Marlborough, where his mother was living. William and his brother Gilbert Warner Speakman (listed erroneously as “G. William Speakman”) appear on the 1770 list of polls reprinted in Charles Hudson’s history of the town.

Mary Speakman was an upper-class Anglican, a relative of imperial merchants, and thus a natural supporter of the royal government. But in that same month, on 7 August 1768, her Marlborough neighbor Christian Barnes reported to her friend Elizabeth Smith:
Mrs. Speakman was become a violent advocate in the Cause of Liberty which (if I was not upon my gard) would ocation some warm disputes but I saw so much of party rage in my last excurtion that I determin’d to surpress my sentiments rather than enter into any debate upon that subject.
The following year, on 20 Nov 1769, Barnes confirmed: “my Friend Mrs. Speakman still continues a Staunch Whig tho to do her Justice not from any Self interested Motives at least that I can see.”

It was in that context that Barnes wrote in June 1770 after locals vandalized her husband’s property (including a coach apparently bought from Smith):
it is said that a Young Gentleman (who had formily Headed the Mob in Boston and now resides with us) is the perpetrator of all this Mischeife but I will not beleive it till I have further profe
On 13 July, after the threats had escalated, Barnes was ready to name names:
I mention’d in my former Letter that some people affirm’d that Billy Speakman was the Person that cut your Coach to Peices I did not beleive it nor do I now but this I am certain of that those who have taken such a cruel Mession [?] to undermine us in our Business would stick at nothing to perpetuate their Scheem and who knows what these two Young fellows may be capible off and how far they may work up the People (already distracted with party rage) to Molest and injure us.
The “two Young fellows” appear to be William and his younger brother.

Meanwhile, the gulf between Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Speakman had widened to include not just politics but business.

COMING UP: What to do with Gibby?

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Some comments about this posting ended up over here.